Co-accused Arthur E. (left) at a fashion show in Moscow 2019: preference for brothel visits
It is better not to encounter the common puff adder in the wild. The venomous snake, which lives mainly in Africa, belongs to the viper family and is a dangerous poisonous snake, a bite can be fatal. The snake lives up to its name: as anatomical studies suggest, puff adders may feel something like fun during sex.
The parallels were obvious to the officials of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) in the summer of last year. Their latest recruit, the diamond trader Arthur E., was supposed to spy for the German foreign intelligence service in Africa on his many business trips. E. seemed a bit windy, but above all he probably had a preference for brothel visits. Two BND employees were able to see this for themselves at a meeting in a Berlin establishment. What could be more obvious in the search for an alias than the poisonous reptile?
Treason in a particularly serious case
It's easy to imagine the thigh-slappers in the corridors of the authority: Allow me, our new man for Africa, Arthur E., codenamed Puff Adder. At the time, perhaps only one person suspected that contact with the newcomer could be dangerous for the BND: Carsten L., the BND employee who had recommended E. to his colleagues as a possible informer.
Starting next Wednesday, Carsten L. and Arthur E. will have to answer to the 6th Criminal Senate of the Berlin Court of Appeal. The Federal Prosecutor's Office has charged the two men on suspicion of treason in a particularly serious case. It is the largest espionage trial in Germany in decades: The accused are said to have passed on top-secret information from the BND to the Russian domestic intelligence service FSB last year and collected hundreds of thousands of euros in agent wages for it.
Carsten L. and Arthur E. have been in custody for almost a year. E. has already testified several times and is the most important witness for the investigators, Carsten L. has reportedly remained silent about the allegations so far.
The case is complex, and a verdict is not expected before summer next year. Details from the proceedings are likely to put the German foreign intelligence service in need of an explanation.
Until now, it was known that the two men had allegedly betrayed findings of the BND from a technical surveillance program to the Russians. According to the report, the BND had succeeded in investigating the Russian mercenary group Wagner. If such an operation is discovered, it is bad even in peacetime. In wartime, it's a disaster for an intelligence service.
But after the initial shock, BND President Bruno Kahl was quick to publicly dismiss it – everything was not so bad, was his message. What had flowed to Russia was "very manageable" in terms of both quantity and usability, Kahl said in an interview with the Tagesspiegel in July.
But is that true?
Damage greater than previously known
Investigations by SPIEGEL now show that the damage to the BND and its partners was probably far more serious than the head of the agency, Kahl, depicts. According to the report, Wagner commanders learned through the alleged betrayal that their internal messenger service had been hacked by the West. The BND had also secretly read the chat.
After the Russians learned about it through their two alleged spies from Germany, the fighters discussed far less in the channel and moved sensitive communication to another chat. According to secret investigation documents that SPIEGEL was able to view, the BND probably lost information of outstanding importance.
The scandal, it now seems clear, is not the result of a long-planned operation by the Kremlin to infiltrate Germany's foreign intelligence service. Rather, it was probably a chance encounter between two ex-soldiers in the spring of 2021 in Weilheim, Upper Bavaria, that put the BND in a predicament.
According to the investigations of the Federal Prosecutor's Office, Carsten L. and Arthur E. met at a party in a sports home in Weilheim. L., a former officer in the Bundeswehr and at that time head of department at the BND in the "Technical Reconnaissance" department, apparently got along with the businessman right away. E. also used to be a telecommunicator in the German Armed Forces, which is probably why Carsten L. quickly gains confidence. Over beer, he is said to have told E. openly about his work in Pullach near Munich, where the BND's technical reconnaissance officers are based.
Arthur E., on the other hand, reports on his travels around the globe as a trader in precious metals and diamonds. He apparently brags about his contacts in business and politics, especially in Africa.
Dangerous twist in the beach club
The evening at the Sportheim is the beginning of an alliance. Carsten L., according to the investigators' findings, later recruits E. as a potential informant for the BND, where the businessman apparently quickly makes new friends: According to Arthur E., a meeting with BND employees in Berlin ends in the large brothel Artemis.
Things probably took a dangerous turn on September 12 last year. At a meeting with L. at Lake Starnberg, E. brings an acquaintance from Russia with him. The extremely wealthy entrepreneur is said to be well wired in Moscow's security apparatus. Allegedly, he is looking for help to get a residence permit for Germany.
The conversation between the three men in a beach club revolves around possible joint business, then the rich Russian apparently starts an initiation attempt. Perhaps one day they could do something good for their two countries, the Russian is said to have said to L., E. later recalled.
On the same day, L. is said to have sifted through documents in the BND systems for the first time, which later turned up in Russia. At the end of September, according to E. in his interrogations, he had given the material to two FSB employees in Moscow on behalf of L. E. is said to have brought a second shipment of secret documents to Russia in October.
Secret access to Wagner app
It was probably not large quantities that Carsten L. .dem is said to have taken from the data processing system of the BND. Printed out, it is said to have been a total of only 73 DIN A4 pages. However, the original source of the tables, images and text passages compiled was apparently highly sensitive. According to SPIEGEL research, the content was from the Russian chat application "Kod" – a kind of internal WhatsApp application for Wagner mercenaries that could be used to send file attachments in addition to text.
Until its boss Yevgeny Prigozhin fell out with the Russian government, the private military company Wagner played a significant role in the Ukraine war. Up to 50,000 mercenaries are said to have been deployed there in the meantime, and the troops recruited tens of thousands of fighters in prisons.
According to the investigation, commanders of the Wagner Group often communicated with the Ukrainian army via the "Kod" app during the battles. According to SPIEGEL research, specialists from partner services had apparently initially succeeded in hacking the app. At some point, the BND also gained access.
For the officials in Pullach and Berlin, it was a real treasure trove of insights: Through hundreds of chat messages read by Wagner mercenaries every month, the West presumably had a detailed picture of the losses, tactics and goals of the fighters on the Russian side for months.
But luck soon seemed to run out of the BND agents. From mid-October, the eavesdropping experts in Pullach are said to have noticed that less useful information was posted in the chats. And indeed, on October 20 and again on the 25th, the officials read along when a Wagner commander suddenly instructed his troops to use another channel for internal communication. Attachments of chat messages in "Kod" were also said to have been unreadable by the BND from then on.
Shortly before, the BND had received a clear warning from a foreign partner: material from the agency was circulating at the FSB and in circles of the Wagner Group, the colleagues warned. Someone had obviously betrayed the BND's "Kod" operation to the Russians. This meant that not only was probably the most important access to the Wagner Group lost. The BND now also had to find a mole in its own ranks.
The Super Disaster
Elaborate internal investigations quickly led to Carsten L. He had just been appointed to a new post and was now supposed to be responsible for the security checks of all colleagues. Shortly before Christmas, the Federal Prosecutor's Office had L. arrested. Weeks later, investigators met Arthur E. at Munich airport, who had returned from a trip to the United States. As a result, E. was no longer an informant for the BND.
The lawyers of Carsten L. and Arthur E. did not respond to a SPIEGEL inquiry about the allegations. In a press release from September, Carsten L.'s defense attorney said that there was no reason for a confession. Among other things, the co-accused E. had lied several times in his statements and had repeatedly adapted statements.
In the past, E. had denied to investigators that he had received an agent's salary from Russia. He had always acted in good faith to help Carsten L. and thus the BND. In response to an inquiry, the BND stated that it would not comment publicly on any intelligence findings or activities. Thus, no statement is made as to whether facts are correct or not.
In the newspaper interview in July, BND chief Kahl was self-confident. After the scandal, the management of his agency had succeeded in refuting possible reservations of partner services. They were very open about their own vulnerability. This, according to Kahl, has "rather strengthened" the basis of trust.